World War I re­mem­brance planned decades af­ter seg­re­gated cer­e­monies

The De­catur Daily

Texarkana Gazette - - ACROSS SOUTH - By Dean­gelo Mc­Daniel

DE­CATUR, Ala.—A group of his­to­ri­ans plans a racially uni­fied cer­e­mony to honor 18 north Alabama sol­diers who died dur­ing World War I but were memo­ri­al­ized in sep­a­rate, seg­re­gated ser­vices al­most 100 years ago.

The cer­e­mony is at 2 p.m. Sun­day at the De­catur Pub­lic Li­brary.

The sol­diers—some black, some white—all died in France but were re­mem­bered sep­a­rately be­cause of their race, ac­cord­ing to Wyl­heme Ragland, a re­tired pas­tor and his­to­rian who has done most of the re­search about the honors they re­ceived.

The pro­gram on Vet­er­ans Day will bring to­gether the de­scen­dants of the sol­diers, all from Mor­gan County.

"We can't change the past, but we can unify the fam­i­lies go­ing for­ward," said Ragland, who knew about the seg­re­gated cer­e­monies be­cause the late Athy­lene Banks men­tioned it to him more than two decades ago.

Banks was a long­time De­catur res­i­dent, for­mer school ad­min­is­tra­tor and daugh­ter of one of De­catur's early black coun­cil mem­bers.

In 1920, Pres­i­dent Ray­mond Poin­care of France awarded memo­rial cer­tifi­cates to the fam­i­lies of the 18 sol­diers. The U.S. War Depart­ment re­ceived the cer­tifi­cates and for­warded them to the Mor­gan County Amer­i­can Le­gion.

Af­ter the cer­tifi­cates ar­rived in De­catur, they were seg­re­gated by race, and "racially seg­re­gated re­li­gious ser­vices" were held at First Pres­by­te­rian Church for the white sol­diers and King's Memo­rial Methodist Epis­co­pal Church for the black sol­diers, Ragland said.

Wil­liam Fowler, a re­tired school teacher who re­sides in Danville, plans to at­tend Sun­day's event be­cause his great un­cle, Cpl. Owen Fowler, one of the black sol­diers killed in France.

"I didn't know much about my un­cle un­til Rev. Ragland con­tacted me about what he was do­ing," Fowler said. "This is won­der­ful."

Owen Fowler, who is buried in Hart­selle Bap­tist Church Ceme­tery, died Nov. 13, 1918. He was ini­tially buried in France, but his brother re­quested that his re­mains be brought home. He is one of eight sol­diers buried on Mor­gan County soil.

The ex­act ra­cial break­down of the 18 sol­diers isn't clear gen­er­a­tions later, but at least four were black. The fam­i­lies of the sol­diers had lit­tle power to push back against sep­a­rate ser­vices in 1918 "be­cause that's the way things were," said Libby Boggess, a his­to­rian at the Mor­gan County Ar­chives. Alabama was seg­re­gated by law at the time.

She said the French gov­ern­ment also sent a tree in 1919 that was to be planted in honor of the 18 sol­diers who died.

"No one seems to know where it was planted and if it's still around," Boggess said.

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